How should church members today approach morally repugnant scriptural narratives? I wondered about that as I recently read over Elder Hales’ talk about agency and obedience.
There was a lot in the talk which I liked. I do think that order and consistency can absolutely be useful for faith communities (for instance, in helping establish expectations). I think that agency is a useful way to conceptualize human behavior, and that despite its problems it remains one of the best broad answers to problems of theodicy. And I certainly agree with many of the talk’s basic points, such as the tension between freedom and accountability.
But I had a strongly negative reaction to a central portion of the talk, because it relies heavily on a morally repugnant Old Testament story. I give you Elder Hales:
Contrary to the world’s secular teaching, the scriptures teach us that we do have agency, and our righteous exercise of agency always makes a difference in the opportunities we have and our ability to act upon them and progress eternally.
For example, through the prophet Samuel, the Lord gave a clear commandment to King Saul: “The Lord sent me to anoint thee to be king: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the Lord. “Go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have.”
But Saul did not follow the Lord’s commandment. He practiced what I call “selective obedience.” Relying on his own wisdom, he spared the life of King Agag and brought back the best of the sheep, oxen, and other animals. The Lord revealed this to the prophet Samuel and sent him to remove Saul from being king. When the prophet arrived, Saul said, “I have performed the commandment of the Lord.” But the prophet knew otherwise, saying, “What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?”
Saul excused himself by blaming others, saying the people had kept the animals in order to make sacrifices to the Lord. The prophet’s answer was clear: “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken [to the commandments of the Lord] than the fat of rams.”
Finally, Saul confessed, saying, “I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice.” Because Saul did not hearken with exactness—because he chose to be selectively obedient—he lost the opportunity and the agency to be king. My brothers and sisters, are we hearkening with exactness to the voice of the Lord and His prophets? Or, like Saul, are we practicing selective obedience and fearing the judgments of men?
Of course there are a number of morally repugnant Old Testament stories (and more than a few morally repugnant New Testament stories), but this has to be one of the worst. Saul is ordered to kill the Amalekites, man, woman and child, and down to the livestock: In today’s language, Saul is asked to commit genocide.
All genocide is problematic, but this genocide is for a particularly bad reason. God explains in verse 2 that Saul is to commit genocide because the Amalekites warred against Joshua 300 years earlier. Not kidding. Read it yourself:
Samuel also said unto Saul, The Lord sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Sam. 15:1-3).
This is a vile and morally repugnant act. Committing war is problematic, even under the best of circumstances. Committing genocide on a neighboring kingdom — “both man and woman, infant and suckling” — is barbaric and inexcusable. And God’s explicit and stated rationale — that this will avenge a 300-year-old affront — only serves to highlight the absurdity of the order.
Of course Saul, being an amoral fellow, cheerfully complied with almost all of God’s genocide request, and killed almost all of the Amalekites. However, as Elder Hales points out, Saul ultimately wasn’t genocidal *enough.* He disobeyed a portion of Samuel’s order because he failed to kill the Amalekite king and livestock. And Elder Hales condemns this “selective obedience” in his talk. Apparently when God gives a genocide order, one should not be selectively obedient. Indeed, the Old Testament account ends with Samuel telling Saul that he will be removed as king of Israel for his disobedience.
I remember hearing this story in seminary and finding it a helpful example of the importance of obedience. Now it seems cringe-worthy. What are we supposed to make of a God who removes a king for unwillingness to genocide the sheep? The whole story is sadly reminiscent of Baby Face Nelson in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where the character violently attacks a herd of cattle, yelling, “Cows? I hate cows worse than coppers!”
(The Baby Face Nelson scene starts at the 4:40 mark, and the cow scene is at 7:00. Warning: contains unchurchly language, and violence against cows and some people).
As we’ve mentioned, there are a lot of repulsive Old Testament stories, and most of them are generally ignored. This one, however, is regularly invoked as a morality lesson for today. This makes it particularly troubling. With many accounts, we can place them in historical context and leave them there. The ethics of tribal warfare were different at the time.
But in invoking the account today, Elder Hales makes clear that Saul’s disobedience was wrong. This would indicate that God’s original order was legitimate. And that seems deeply problematic. It’s one thing to note that genocide has been used historically. It’s another to argue in 2010 that reluctant genocide participants should be condemned for their reluctance. Don’t we have better illustrations of core gospel principles — illustrations which don’t ask listeners to condone repugnant ideas?
In fact, this Saul example seems to be exactly wrong for the topic of obedience. It is precisely in the context of an order to kill that individuals should be *least* willing to simply follow orders, and *most* inclined to ask questions, push back, or disobey. A genocide order is the worst possible context for a lesson on obedience. As we know from Nuremberg, genocide participants cannot excuse their actions by saying that they were merely following orders. The church’s own troubled history with the Mountain Meadows Massacre — or for that matter, with church member participation in validating Iraq torture — underscores the point.
I hope that the at some point, modern sensibility about genocide will prevail, and the Saul story will be left to gather dust like so many other problematic Old Testament accounts. Until then, I hope that we can think about what it means, and the implications in condemning Saul’s “selective obedience.” And that just maybe, we can push back, and make clear — *especially* in contexts like that of the Saul story — that sometimes to ask questions, get a second opinion, or even defy orders, is better than to simply obey.